2021 Pritzker Prize Goes To French Architects Who 'Work With Kindness'

Mar 16, 2021
Originally published on March 16, 2021 3:07 pm

Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, this year's winners of the most prestigious award in architecture, are as surprised as anyone else.

"Of course it's very pleasant, and we are very pleased," Lacaton marveled in a Zoom call with NPR. She and her partner, both wearing black, smiled broadly from the screen behind their blocky eyeglasses.

The Pritzker jury citation says that Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal "have shown that architecture can have a great impact on our communities and contribute to the awareness that we are not alone."
Laurent Chalet

Putting aside their choice in eyewear, Lacaton and Vassal could not be more different from an earlier generation of Pritzker "starchitects," known for their signature styles, statement skyscrapers and flamboyant follies. Instead, the two apply a credo: "Never demolish, never remove or replace, always add, transform, and reuse!" to their work on old urban buildings. That includes dilapidated public housing (or "social housing" as it is known in France). Designs by Lacaton and Vassal have focused on replenishing low-income housing complexes, aesthetically and functionally, while respecting — rather than displacing — the tenants who live there.

"Buildings are beautiful when people feel well in them," Lacaton explained in a 2017 lecture at the Architectural League of New York. "When the light inside is beautiful and the air is pleasant. When the exchange with the outside seems easy and gentle, and when uses and sensations are unexpected."

Vassal added, "There's a lot of violence in architecture and urbanism. We try to be precise. We try to work with kindness."

Lacaton and Vassal met as idealistic architecture students in the late 1970s at a prestigious architecture school in Bordeaux. Vassal found work as an urban planner in West Africa. When Lacaton visited him in Niger, the two began building simple projects together that reflected their commitment to sustainability while extending space.

Winter gardens and balconies were added to expand living space in social buildings in Bordeaux in 2017.
Philippe Ruault

Their approach means never tearing down buildings to implement their own grand visions. When Lacaton and Vassal were asked to redesign a particularly large and hideous public housing bloc in Bordeaux in 2017, the residents told them they did not want to move, even temporarily, but they wanted bigger units. The solution, devised with fellow architects Frédéric Druot and Christophe Hutin, was to encase the building in large outdoor terraces, adding sliding glass doors to each unit, and remaking the exterior from drab concrete to something gleaming, modern and alive. Suddenly, everyone had roomy outdoor space, some of which was enclosed to be used during the winter as "winter gardens."

"So, spaces where people can get sun and light and spend time with family, but it's also open to neighbors," says Columbia University architecture professor Mabel O. Wilson. She paid Lacaton and Vassal the ultimate compliment: "I would love to live in one of their apartments, in one of the buildings that they've designed."

This house in Bordeaux was built in a former biscuit factory in 1999. Part of the roof has been removed to allow natural light into an intramural garden.
Philippe Ruault

The firm's approach of cost-effective, creative readaption could be a model for urban planning in the U.S., Wilson says, where demolition's been seen as a solution to deteriorating public housing in such cities as Chicago and St. Louis. "And granted, there's a host of other issues as to why that happened," she says. "It's not the building, it's the absence of social services and lack of repair to buildings that made living in public housing untenable for residents."

Lacaton and Vassal started their firm in Paris in 1987. Together, they've transformed numerous residential complexes, primarily in France, as well as the School of Architecture in Nantes, the Polyvalent Theater in Lille and a hulking exhibition center in Dunkirk, where they chose to essentially duplicate a giant old warehouse, rather than destroy it.

An old boat warehouse was renovated and replicated to create the FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais exhibition center in Dunkirk.
Philippe Ruault

Wilson says the ethos exemplified by Lacaton and Vassal thrills her students at Columbia University. Many young designers confronting the undeniably capitalist realities of climate change and gentrification find the approach of the two more compelling than fading mythologies of architects as towering geniuses of individualism, says architecture writer and designer Antonio Pacheco.

"You know the first person to win the Pritzker was Philip Johnson in 1979," he points out. "At that point, Johnson was basically at the height of his career. And now, you might think Johnson's at the lowest point of his career."

Johnson is known for the Seagram Building in Manhattan and his famous Glass House. He died in 2005. But Johnson's been in the news recently, after Harvard University and the Museum of Modern Art removed or covered Johnson's name from public signage because of the architect's history of racism and fascist affiliations.

"I'm surprised the Pritzker didn't take this is an opportunity to highlight that legacy with a different choice this year, that would speak to an awareness this conversation was happening," Pacheco said. He's referring to the fact that the Pritzker has yet to go to a Black architect. "And I think that the other blind spot that the Pritzker continues to reinforce is this focus on the singular architect, or the two partners."

Which, he points out, renders invisible the creative teamwork and labor that makes ambitious projects possible. Lacaton and Vassal may be something of a safe choice, Pachecho says, but their work deserves celebration.

Philippe Ruault

"The work of Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal reflects architecture's democratic spirit," the Pritzker jury citation reads. "Through their belief that architecture is more than just buildings, through the issues they address and the proposals they realize, through forging a responsible and sometimes solitary path illustrating that the best architecture can be humble and is always thoughtful, respectful, and responsible, they have shown that architecture can have a great impact on our communities and contribute to the awareness that we are not alone."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The most prestigious award in architecture was announced this morning. The winners are two French architects whose work was described by the Pritzker Prize committee as humble. That's a compliment. But as NPR's Neda Ulaby tells us, this year's winners are redefining architecture by insisting on the usefulness of old, unlovely buildings.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal are the opposite of celebrity starchitects. They take ugly urban buildings such as public housing and they make them beautiful.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANNE LACATON: Buildings are beautiful when people feel well in them, when the light inside is beautiful and the air is pleasant.

ULABY: That's Lacaton during a lecture with Vassal at the Architectural League of New York in 2017. They met as idealistic architecture students in the 1970s. Their work is not about tearing stuff down, said Vassal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEAN-PHILIPPE VASSAL: The idea is to add. We have to add to each situations - never subtract, always adding.

ULABY: So, for example, when the housing authority in Bordeaux invited the architects to reimagine a hideous public housing complex, the designers added more space - huge outdoor terraces with sliding-glass doors for every unit. Nobody had to move. The building's sleek, modern makeover won the ultimate compliment from Columbia University architecture professor Mabel O. Wilson.

MABEL O WILSON: I would love to live in one of their apartments.

ULABY: Such cost-efficient readaptation that respects where people live could be a model in the U.S., Wilson says. She's glad the Pritzker's rewarding architects preoccupied with inequity and waste, rather than splashy statements.

WILSON: And that's what I appreciate. It's not Gehry making something exceptional; it's actually making something unexceptional livable and making it aesthetically beautiful.

ULABY: Some critics had hoped this would be the first year a Black architect would win the Pritzker.

ANTONIO PACHECO: There is a huge list of Black architects and architects from all over the world who are deserving of the prize, absolutely, and who work in the same way.

ULABY: Architecture writer Antonio Pacheco points out the first Pritzker winner was Philip Johnson, whose legacy of racism is getting almost as much attention these days as his famous Glass House. Pacheco says the Pritzker also minimizes the teamwork and labor that goes into great buildings.

PACHECO: I think that's the other kind of blind spot that the Pritzker Prize continues to reinforce is this focus on the singular architect or the two partners.

ULABY: Architecture students today, says Pacheco, have turned away from heroes like the one in Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead." Instead, they look to designers like Lacaton and Vassal, who care about climate change and gentrification and see humans as a building's most important element.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VASSAL: There's a lot of violence in architecture and urbanism.

ULABY: Jean-Philippe Vassal in 2017. He said the two start every project by focusing on what's positive about the buildings they are transforming.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VASSAL: We try to be precise. We try to be delicate. We try to work with kindness.

ULABY: The architecture of kindness, radical and overdue.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.